This fellow is wise enough to play the fool
And to do that well craves a kind of wit.
– Twelfth Night III.i.60-1
It has been far too long since I have properly reviewed a What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW) production, so it seems fitting to return to the troupe with the play from whence they take their name. As is their usual course, the student-run group made use of an unassuming campus space, the basement of University Place Christian Church, whose architecture cleverly provides the necessaries for early modern staging. There are a number of reasons why I consistently enjoy this particular play, a comedy something tonally akin to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It; I now come to think that one of the reasons for its perennial success, especially at the hands of student thespians, is that it requires little technology. The play is incredibly plastic, requiring nothing but the three entrances (and even potentially making by with just the two, the norm of medieval hall performances) to carry the action.
What I appreciated most about WYW’s performances this weekend was their choice to embrace the stripped-down quality this particular playtext makes available. The costumes were well-wrought yet simple and straightforward, generally suggesting the Renaissance with doublet, hose, and bucklers, but little else. In fact, aside from having at least two boys who could play strong and convincing women, the only special technology the play requires is a costuming one: yellow stockings with garters to cross them. (While I do not know for sure, the simplicity of material performance the playtext suggests I imagine made it particularly plastic in terms of touring, essentially capable of being staged in any environment.) There was little else but chairs and a table, along with Feste’s (Megan Scharlau) ukulele—musical performance the only other special technology the play seems to call for—to adorn the playing space. In such thoughtful and consistent simplicity we are given the literal and cognitive space to let the language do more work.
With this additional linguistic emphasis given the bare-ish stage (whether Shakespeare’s plays were written for or performed on a bare stage is hotly contested), the puppet master of this play turned out to be Feste. There are a number of inventive parts to this play, where the characters have distinct individual voices—another quality that makes it especially useful for undergraduate performance. Typically, the parts of Malvolio (Erik Wessel), Sir Toby Belch (Monty Joyce), Feste and Viola (Tori Stukins) compete for dominance in individual stagings. I’ve yet to see a successful ensemble rendering that effectively gives the parts equal weight to the benefit of a production; I think that a director’s choice of giving preference to a particular part helps to provide the play with ideological coherence, and so don’t mind the privileging. Scharlau adopted the “omniscient fool” posture in a vein similar to Ben Kingsley’s interpretation for the part, overseeing much of the activity and doubling a number of parts noted and not in the text, including the captain of the wrecked ship who first introduces Viola/Cesario to Orsino’s (Tom Fornando) court. Understanding her words, and underscoring their intentional doubleness, the majority of the play’s action and meaning became tied up in her rendering.
When I return to a play that I’ve seen too many times to count, my ears are looking for a line I haven’t heard fully before, one that is glossed over too frequently but in the mouths of these particular actors is imbibed with a meaning I have yet to discover. In this production I got two such moments. First, the simplicity and elegance of Feste’s rendering of the songs, making use of the lower range of her alto voice which allowed the consonants to ring more concretely than a soprano might. Her rendition of Feste’s first song was far sweeter and less plaintive than is usual:
O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low:
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
In these lyrics I could hear both Orsino and Olivia’s (Kim Gasiciel) longing for “the one,” that Platonic ideal of a romantic other made for them but that they do not see in one another. At the start of the play we have found that the two have adopted different strategies for this longéd longing for a beloved: Orsino basks in love songs and doggedly pursues Olivia, while she gives herself a stricture of abstinence. Both refuse to let the happenstance of love have the upper hand: Orsino constantly pursues it in all the wrong places, while Olivia refuses to let rejection even be an option. Feste’s song quietly encourages the notion of an ideally suited and companionate love but advises giving oneself over to the serendipity and unknowingness of love’s timing in order to be rewarded with such a love.
The second such moment of new hearing was a quotation spoken by Viola (in her disguise as Cesario), telling Orsino a story illustrating the constancy of women in love: “She sat like Patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief.” It wasn’t until sitting down to write this review that I noticed the passage was included on the cover of the program, presumably emphasizing life’s vacillations between “pleasure and obligation,” according to the director’s note. Unlike Feste’s advice to Orsino, Viola makes a claim that women suffer a kind of small death at the hands of love unrequited, that in their patience, as eternal as a burial monument, women are willing to wait and give over to fate even to destruction. When paired together, the song and quotation inveigh against the wracks of patience in love precisely because it promises equally rewards or devastation when giving over to hope. Shakespeare’s ambivalence towards love is a dark one then, reveling as much in the serendipity of a shipwreck bearing twins, ideal matches for the lords of the land, as in the strings left untied, the broken hearts of Antonio and Malvolio is trying to wrest away Cupid from his arrow. And considering the advice from Feste’s mouth, perhaps the puppet master intended irresolution all the more to make the point.
- The What You Will Shakespeare Company‘s production of Twelfth Night; or, What You Will plays at the University Place Christian Church 17-18 October at 8:00pm.
- This fall the troupe will also be mounting productions of Julius Caesar and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Stay tuned for more details!